Thursday, September 27, 2007

Reply to Alleged Biblical Contradictions Concerning Judas and His Death (vs. Dave Van Allen and Dr. Jim Arvo)

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This is a portion from my reply to an atheist deconversion story by Dave Van Allen, who runs the large website ExChristian.Net. His words will be in blue. Dr. Jim Arvo's words will be in green.

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One of the biggest contradictions I could not rectify was whether or not Judas threw his money into the temple and hanged himself or bought a field and fell headlong into it.

Let's examine this alleged contradiction:
Matthew 27:5-10 (RSV) And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, "It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money." So they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, "And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord directed me."

Acts 1:18 (Now this man bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.
Now, do these two descriptions necessarily formally contradict? No. For example, here is one way that the seeming discrepancy of the purchase of the field can be explained:
Regarding the "purchasing" of the "field"...both accounts are true. The temple rulers bought the plot of ground, like Matthew says. Acts does not contradict Matthew. Remember that the priests said, "it is not lawful to put them into the treasury". In other words, they were not taking actual 'receipt' of the money, diverting it, instead, to purchase the plot of ground. Thus, in a 'legal' sense (?) since they were not taking 'ownership' of the money, it was still Judas' money. And when Peter speaks of "wages of iniquity", it is not that Judas bought the plot of ground...but that the money he had received to betray Jesus had bought it. The money was Judas' "wages"...but he threw it back, and the priests weren't accepting it. These "30 pieces" were like the proverbial "hot potato" BLOOD MONEY both parties were trying to get rid of. Technically it was still Judas' money, which the priests used to purchase the plot of ground. Thus, in a legal sense, it could be said that Judas bought it, because it was 'his money' that bought it.

. . . And so, did Judas hang himself...or did he "fall headlong"? Both are obviously true. He hung himself. When did he fall headlong? Did the rope break? Or did his "entrails gush out" when others came along to cut him down from the tree (assuming he actually hung himself from a tree limb)...and he split open when he hit the ground? There is a lot of data the Bible doesn't tell us. How tall was the tree? If he hung himself on a tall branch, it might not have been possible for somebody to hold the body while another cut the rope. So, if a single person went up and cut the rope, and the body fell a great distance to the ground (not gently), the chances might be good that the body would land, making a 'mess'.

[ source ]
The supposed contradiction of the purchase is also clarified by looking at the Greek words involved, as another Christian site devoted to alleged biblical discrepancies explains:
Once we examine the original Greek, we see Matthew and Luke differentiate between terms of ownership. Matthew uses the word ajgoravzw (legal ownership) while Luke uses ktaomai (physical possession). In other words, Judas purchased the field in his name and was therefore the legal owner, but after his death, the priests obtained the field for communal use yet did not possess the legal rights to it. In layman's terms, Judas purchased the field but the priest acquired the field after his death.
And Judas' manner of death is speculated upon by another web page, without falling into necessary contradiction:

1. First, Judas tried to kill himself by hanging himself. And this is not always a successful way. Maybe he tried, and failed (as have many others who have tried to commit suicide by hanging). Then after some time, he threw himself off a cliff and fell upon some jagged rocks. Keep in mind that it is not uncommon for people who commit suicide to have tried it before.

2. Judas could have tied a rope to a tree branch that extended over a cliff (after all, you have to get some space between your feet and the ground to hang yourself). In this situation, the rope/branch could have broke before or after death, and Judas plummeted to the ground and landed on some jagged rocks.

Certainly, these explanations are plausible, thus a contradiction has not been established.

MAT 27:5-8 Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself. But the chief priests took the silver pieces and said, "It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, because they are the price of blood." And they consulted together and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

First of all, notice that the text does not say that Judas died as a result of hanging. All it says is that he "went and hanged himself." Luke however, in Acts, tells us that "and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out." This is a pretty clear indication (along with the other details given in Acts - Peter's speech, the need to pick a new apostle, etc.) that at least after Judas' fall, he was dead. So the whole concept that Matthew and Luke both recount Judas' death is highly probable, but not clear cut. Therefore, if I were to take a radical exegetical approach here, I could invalidate your alleged contradiction that there are two different accounts of how Judas died.

Notice verse 5."Then he...went and hanged himself." Matthew does not say Judas died, does it? Should we assume he died as a result of the hanging?

What does Acts say? ACT 1:18 (Now this man purchased a field with the wages of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out.

ACT 1:20 "For it is written in the book of Psalms: 'Let his dwelling place be desolate, And let no one live in it'; and, 'Let another take his office.'

Here we may have a graphic explanation of Judas' death. Of course, maybe someone can find some medical source somewhere that discusses the possibility of one having their entrails gush out after being burst open in the middle, and still survive. :)

So, my line of reasoning to dispel the contradiction myth re: the "two" accounts of Judas' death is this. Matthew doesn't necessarily explain how Judas died; he does say Judas "hanged himself", but he didn't specifically say Judas died in the hanging incident. However, Acts seems to show us his graphic demise. Therefore, there is no contradiction between Matthew and Acts re: Judas' death.

We do know from Matthew that he did hang himself and Acts probably records his death. It is possible and plausible that he fell from the hanging and hit some rocks, thereby bursting open. However, Matthew did not say Judas died as a result of the hanging, did he? Most scholars believe he probably did, but....

One atheist I debated along these lines said... the Greek word "apagchw" (ie: hang oneself) is translated as a successful hanging. I replied, No you can't only conclude this, although...this was a highly probable outcome. But Matthew does not state death as being a result. The Greek word is APAGCHO. Matthew 27:5 is it's only occurrence in the New Testament. In the LXX (the Greek translation of the OT used at the time of Jesus), it's only used in 2 Samuel 17:23 : "Now when Ahithophel saw that his advice was not followed, he saddled a donkey, and arose and went home to his house, to his city. Then he put his household in order, and hanged himself, and died; and he was buried in his father's tomb." Notice that not only is it stated that Ahithophel "hanged himself" [Gr. LXX, APAGCHO], but it explicitly adds, "and died". Here we have no doubt of the result. In Matthew, we are not explicitly told Judas died. Also, there is nothing in the Greek to suggest success or failure. It simply means "hang oneself".
The same page discusses the aspect of the purchase:
Perhaps here, the following maxim holds -- "He who does a thing by another, does it himself." That is, yes it was the chief priests who actually bought the field, but Judas had furnished the occasion for its purchase. Thus, the verse in Acts could be employing a figure of speech where we attribute to the man himself any act which he has directly or indirectly procured to be done. After all, we attribute the "Clinton health care plan" to Bill Clinton, when in reality, it is a plan devised by others associated with Bill Clinton.
So we see that very plausible Christian explanations can be and have been advanced for these things. I doubt that young Dave sought these out. He merely asked questions of people who usually weren't prepared to give an adequate defense and counter-explanation. Then Dave used their non-answer as a pretext for falsely supposing that no Christian could provide any plausible explanation, thus leading to the further unwarranted conclusion that the Bible was untrustworthy (hence, Christianity itself).

In contrast, here is Dave's counter-"explanation" from the combox:
[T]he real point is that neither the writer of Matthew nor the writer of Luck actually saw any of it - it was all hearsay. It seems obvious that each writer merely tailored the details of the fable in order to demonize either the Jewish leaders or Judas, depending on the writer's personal motive.

Besides, I've heard that worn out apologetic a hundred times, and for many a year I even tried to believe it. I'm ashamed to say I even preached it to others.

However, both stories cannot be true - period. Since there is some measure of inaccuracy in at least one of the stories, that would suggest that the Bible is not inerrant. If the Bible is not inerrant in even one sentence, then there is error, and that means it is NOT the word of a god.

. . . the evidence remains that Judas either hanged himself in a field he purchased, or he had a nasty fall in a field that someone else purchased. More than likely, neither story has a shred of truth in it and the writers of the two gospels simply felt that Judas needed to end up dead after his horrible "mortal" sin of kissing God on the lips.
You (be you atheist or Christian or something else) decide which is more reasoned and plausible, and which is mere dogmatic denial based on a preconceived bias.

Clearly, anyone could reject anything if they utilized such a "method" and refused to seek out the more informed proponents of said belief-system before finding it wanting. That is Mickey Mouse pseudo-intellectualism, not serious thought and seeking of truth. if Dave Van Allen conceded (today) that this is not a case of two obvious contradictions, then he would have to remove this objection from the collection of those that caused him to reject Christianity.

If the Christian could (speaking hypothetically for the moment) systematically debunk all of his similar objections, does that mean his deconversion is nullified and he would again become a Christian? Maybe so, but that is ultimately a matter of God's grace and faith. Apologists can only remove the roadblocks of false objections. We can lead the horse to the stream and show that there are no unassailable hindrances in getting to the stream, but we can't force the horse to drink.

I wrote to an evangelistic radio ministry out of Richmond Virginia, asking for direction about these apparent problems. I was only thirteen and they responded to my cry for help with a short note. Instead of an intellectually satisfying apologetic, they merely admonished that some things could only be answered through the eyes of faith. I pretty much got the same answer everywhere I went.

Exactly my point. But he did not seek enough answers. There are entire books written about such things, such as, for example, volumes by biblical scholars Gleason Archer and William Arndt. It's even easier now with the Internet (I found the above explanations in short order via Google). Dave didn't have that back then, but books existed in those days, way back in the 60s and 70s. But instead, young Dave settled for non-answers from fundamentalist types unacquainted with apologetics and an intellectual grounding for their faith.

Maybe he didn't know any better then, and can be given some slack (he at least tried to get answers from someone) but he should now, especially after reading this (assuming he ever does). It's a classic case, though, of the absence of apologetics, where it was crucial that it was present, in order to help a young zealous Christian harmonize faith and reason without contradiction or serious difficulty. It wasn't there, and by his own admission, this led him to later reject Christianity.

This is why I do what I do. Apostasy can be avoided in part by an understanding of the reasons why we believe what we believe. That's apologetics. It is extremely important in a Christian's life. As the proverb goes: "the heart cannot accept what the mind believes to be false."

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Having studied the arguments of a great many apologists who purport to dismantle the "so-called contradictions", I can say with little hesitation that I find their arguments to be artificial and filled with special pleading and often circular reasoning. (See below for an example.)

As I have found the hackneyed, facile skeptical arguments, that are often so silly that they don't even understand that a clear formal contradiction is not present at all, but simply wished upon the texts, as a result of the usual predispositional bias of the textual critic. I have several examples on my site.

I don't deny that there are difficult textual questions. Of course there are (and there are silly Christian arguments to be found), and Christian scholars devote entire careers to them in some cases. But many "difficulties" are in fact, none at all.

Regarding how Judas met his demise, DA said "... And so, did Judas hang himself...or did he 'fall headlong'? Both are obviously true."

Obviously?! Why is that obvious?

What is obvious is that it is not a formal contradiction. It just isn't. As a professor, surely you can see and acknowledge that. The two passages can easily be synthesized in several different ways. A true contradiction would be something along the lines of:
1) Judas went and hanged himself and died in five minutes, and his dead body had only a mark on his neck.

2) Judas did not hang himself from a tree, but rather, fell headlong onto sharp rocks and his bowels gushed out and he died.
That is clearly a contradiction, and no one would deny it. But the biblical texts under consideration are not.

Of course it's not a "formal" contradiction! You are unlikely to find many formal contradictions in prose! If I said I had been sick with the flu, and had a 110 fever all day on Wednesday, and I later claimed to have run a marathon in under three hours that same day, there is no formal contradiction. It's conceivable that both were true. However, without some explication, it would be quite fair to think something was amiss in my claims--that not both are true.

Just as it is also "quite fair" to surmise that there was no contradiction of any sort if it isn't obvious. Goose and gander.

As for the Judas accounts, both appear to offer an explanation as to HOW Judas died; that is, they both convey the fact that Judas died, and they give details of a life-ending event. One is quite explicit in asserting that the death was by hanging.

This is untrue. The text (if we want to get technical, as these discussions of "Bible contradictions" always do) says he "hanged himself." It doesn't say he died by hanging. He may very well have, of course, and it is not unreasonable at all to suppose so, but it is also equally reasonable and plausible to harmonize the two accounts in one of the various ways I have presented. He could, for example, have died by hanging and then the body may have fallen, with his bowels coming out. And that is no contradiction. It is mentioning different aspects of what happened to him, in two accounts.

The other mentions a bizarre event of disembowelment. The natural reading of the second is that this bizarre event was the CAUSE of death. Without further explication, there is an apparent contradiction.

It may have been the actual cause of death (with his falling from the tree as he was hanging, but before he had died) or it may not have been , as in my above hypothetical example. It's all speculation on both sides, but a contradiction has not been established; period. End of sentence. The claim is that a contradiction is present, and it has not been proven.

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Certainly not by a plain reading of the text. Do you think it improper for someone to point to the two different accounts and suggest that they contradict?

They could possibly, but not necessarily. When one approaches texts with such hostility and animosity coming in, itching to find a contradiction, then they will "see" them where there are none.

That's ad hominem. I'm not interested in such appeals.

You may not be interested, and it may or not be ad hominem, but it remains a prevalent fact of atheist / agnostic / skeptical exegesis. I've seen it a hundred times. You may not be guilty of it, but many are, and I was making a general observation, as I often do in the midst of discussions.

It seems to me that Christian, though biased in favor of harmonization of biblical texts, at least comes to it with a positive goal of understanding it in a coherent way. But the critic assumes that it is a bundle of contradictions, written by gullible nomadic idiots and shepherds, and so find what they want to find.
He hung himself. When did he fall headlong? Did the rope break? Or did his 'entrails gush out' when others came along to cut him down from the tree (assuming he actually hung himself from a tree limb)...and he split open when he hit the ground? There is a lot of data the Bible doesn't tell us.
Right, lots of details will be missing from any story. However, this does not give you license to ADD whatever detail you wish. In this case you are assuming that the missing details will harmonize the two accounts. Why do you assume that?

Because I am giving the texts the benefit of the doubt, that both parties were telling the truth according to the information available to them.

Why do you assume that?

I explained below, by the analogy of court cases; also because it is the most sensible way to approach anything, unassuming and in charity rather than cynicism.

Then, even if that is so, why do you assume that the information is accurate? Certainly it's possible that the stories are honest and accurate information written by those who were in a position to actually know what happened. But that is one possibility among many.

Following my method above, I assume it is accurate unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary. Also, it is known that the biblical writers conveyed information with extraordinary accuracy. We know this from outside historical and archaeological evidences.

Stories can and do get passed on inaccurately, paraphrased, and embellished. They can also be synthesized from older texts, through midrash. At the other extreme we have total unfounded fabricated, although I see no reason to think the latter is likely in this case.

Like I said, the accuracy of the Bible has been verified again and again as further independent data is gathered (often making higher critics look like fools in their bold claims that are later proven to be false).

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. . . the two can be synthesized and harmonized, just as we would do with two witnesses in a trial, of good character and reputation. We don't assume that their eyewitness accounts clash or that someone is lying because there are some details that don't harmonize at first glance.

No, of course not. Neither do we simply assume that things took place exactly as described. Particularly when it's unclear how the writer came to know what is in the story. One needn't jump to the extreme of "lying" in order to legitimately doubt a report, as per my comments above.

Be that as it may, this particular discussion has to do with whether a glaring contradiction is present. Remember, Dave claimed this was one of the clearest examples of that. I contend that he has failed to demonstrate it.

It is also possible that the missing details would make it even more difficult to harmonize the accounts.

Of course. But the Christian who harmonizes is basically expanding upon what we know in the texts. Nothing wrong with that, just as historical fiction is considered valid as far as it goes: as speculation building upon what we know.

Missing details are MISSING. We do not know what they are. If you claim that there is no contradiction because facts can be inserted to harmonize them, then you are begging the question--i.e. you claim there is no contradiction because fact X can be inserted to harmonize the accounts. But if your reason for assuming X is that it harmonizes the accounts, that is circular.

Not quite. I am saying that there was no contradiction in the first place. A formal contradiction has not been established; as in most atheist arguments of this sort, it is assumed with insufficient warrant. You have to first prove that a formal contradiction is present in the text.

No, that's a specious claim. The word "formal" is completely out of place in this discussion. If we were discussing mathematical proofs, then we would seek formal contradictions. What we have before us are written accounts by people we cannot question. If the obvious surface meaning of the text leads to an improbable scenario (i.e. a person dying in two different ways), then there is sufficient warrant to doubt that they are both true.

And we have attempted to show that it is not necessary to interpret in the sense that there are two conflicting, contradictory stories. People may differ on which scenario is more plausible. I'm glad to leave that to the fair-minded person's judgment. Both sides have been presented; let folks decide for themselves. That's what I am about. We can each claim our view is best all day long but in the end such claims are meaningless. Others will have to decide who has the better interpretation.

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When the Christian speculates on unknown details, it is an argument from plausibility or possibility, not strict logic. That is permissible, but claiming contradictions when they cannot be proven is what is out of line, and lousy thinking.

When a Christian speculates, it's not automatically "plausible"; it's still speculation.

Of course. Plausibility is dependent on many other factors, and people will differ in judging that. My point was that arguments from plausibility are superior to erroneous claims of contradiction that cannot be substantiated.

If there is something to substantiate it, it may or may not then be deemed "plausible".

Yes, exactly.

And again, your claim about "proving" contradictions is specious. One cannot "prove" that something is a contradiction in a formal sense in most prose. These are not formal arguments. In general, they cannot be. There is always an element of likelihood involved. And, no, it's not "lousy thinking". You can do better than a quip like that.

Christians are subject to many quips. I am entitled to judge the strength of arguments, just as ours are routinely judged by you guys. I'm confident that you'll survive the duress of critique.

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I grant that the aspect of the texts having to do with purchase of the land is more likely to be a contradiction, and the explanations we offer less plausible and strong. But I don't think they are bad arguments or outright implausible.

But one's attitude coming to the text will highly color such judgments. I am biased in favor; y'all are biased against. I approach the writer as an intelligent person (and Luke certainly was that). You guys usually regard them as primitive gullible simpletons (part of that is "chronological snobbery", as C.S. Lewis calls it), and so expect to find massive error and contradiction.

That's a crass generalization.

It certainly is a generalization, by nature. Whether it is "crass" or not depends on whether it is a true general observation. I say it is. I have cited, for example, atheist Jim Lazarus excoriating atheist ad hominem attacks against Christians.

I know from my own long experience how I have been treated myself, and I have read dozens of ad hominem atheist posts. My experience with atheists is just as valid as your experience with Christians. I'm the first to admit that there are many Christians who have unfair, uncharitable, even sinful views of atheists en masse. Atheists and agnostics should also admit the obvious regarding the extremely negative view that is taken by many many atheists and agnostics towards Christians and the biblical writers.

Let me give you my assessment, so you needn't speculate. I'll use the author of "Mark" as an example. I suspect that the author truly believed what he wrote, and was rather well educated. I do not detect any outright fabrications in his account--not by the standards of the day.

Good. That is more fair than most atheist attempts at exegesis that I have seen.

However, it appears that the author held a common belief of the time: that scripture was a vehicle though which god speaks (in the present tense) to believers.

It's a rather common belief today, too. It's called "biblical inspiration." Obviously, acceptance or denial of that also colors how people interpret. To us the Bible is made up of inspired words ultimately from God. To you who believe neither in God nor the supernatural, it's just an old book. Big difference . . .

He, and his contemporaries, routinely sought to answer historical questions by looking to scripture. If something was "foreshadowed" in scripture, then it must have come to pass. This is not forgery. This is not dishonesty. Yet it is not a reliable way to conduct historical research either (at least not by today's standards).

I think this is overly simplistic. The gospel writers and Luke in the book of Acts were writing narratives with an eye to producing what we call "salvation history." But one can judge the historical accuracy of these books wholly apart from acceptance of Christian claims that go beyond mere historical writing.

The Judas story, by the way, may have been invented in this way as well. That is a possibility I always consider when reading the Bible.

Well, you would, based on your presuppositions. Thanks for your honesty. We Christians simply accept the text at face value, as we would any other text. Judas died, and there are two accounts of that death, and they do not contradict, as is claimed.

The point being that there may be other legitimate reasons for adding some missing detail--I don't discount that. But I don't see any indication of such an argument in what you've written.

Yet you have not dealt with my arguments themselves. You've only nipped around the edges and engaged in "meta-analysis." That is usually a clue that a person doesn't want to deal with the argument and wants to shift the discussion to extraneous or presuppositional factors. Sometimes that is good, but in the present case, I think it is obfuscation.

Okay, now you have become quite rude.

So you say. I'll let the reader judge whether that is true or not.

That's usually a give-away too. It usually indicates fear of being upstaged.

Is that an ad hominem attack? You tell me. My supposed imaginary "fear" has something to do with the discussion at hand?

I was quite clear that I read only part of your writings, and only responded to part of them. If you actually have something of substance to offer, then please direct me to it, or recap it here. I honestly don't have the time to sift through all you've written looking for something that may make sense to me.

Well, I have enjoyed it, even if you haven't. Thanks for your time.

By the way, I pointed out a very clear circularity in your argument; unless you can substantiate the details you wish to add to the Judas story in some independent way, your argument is fallacious. Please don't nip around the edges. Address that directly if you would. Thanks.

I already did. Thanks again

If you cannot bring yourself to admit that the clear surface meaning of the two Judas accounts are problematic, then it seems to me that you cannot even enter into the debate in a meaningful way IMHO.

Right. And this is what it almost always comes down to in these sorts of discussions. The atheist point of view (on yet another alleged biblical contradiction) is, we are told, self-evidently true. If the Christian can't see that, then there is no discussion. Basically, to disagree at all is to preclude any meaningful discussion. And that is "logic" as viciously circular as it can get . . .

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